Jimmy’s Colorado Politics Column | ‘Teaching to the test’ cheats kids

Written by on July 14, 2020

Last week, the Colorado State Board of Education unanimously approved a measure enabling school districts to “choose their own way of determining if (high school) students are proficient in English and math, instead of using the 11 ways the state had approved.”

Not only does it make sense to ensure school districts can assess student performance with great flexibility, but the approach should be vastly and permanently extended.  Statewide standardized tests should be scaled back in public K-12 schools, leaving more room for district-determined measurements.  Parents need to be well-informed about school performance to make smart choices for their kids, but teachers need maximum room to teach.

Although I’ve never been a teacher, I’ve had years of experience working with public schoolteachers and seeing classroom environments in real time.  Over eight school years, I ran an educational nonprofit that primarily worked with public K-12 schools called the Liberty Day Institute. 

Founded back in 1996, Liberty Day focused primarily on empowering fifth-grade teachers with materials and resources to teach students the U.S. Constitution and American government.  I personally presented to dozens of fifth-grade classes, and we coordinated volunteer speakers in hundreds of classes and distributed materials to a rough average of 100,000 students annually. 

I learned a great deal about how public education functions, that “teaching to the test” is a real (and harmful) thing and why schools hardly emphasize civics in the classroom. 

As my team and I distributed materials and coordinated guest speakers, teachers frequently reiterated how much the social studies were on the backburner.  I noticed a downward trend over the years in time spent, to the point where many fifth-grade teachers were lucky to spend a couple hours a week on American government.

Although there are a few explanations, my experience and conversations with teachers as well as my research tell me that the main reason relates to standardized tests.  Although Colorado’s standards establish fifth-grade students’ first exposure to American government, civics is absent from statewide tests.  The same goes for other social studies topics.  Math, science, reading and writing — all very important subjects, to be sure — dominate classroom time.  That’s because they are the focus of standardized tests.

Moreover, many teachers I’ve known from both professional and personal experience have shared the need to almost exclusively teach material that will expressly be taught on the standardized tests, and in a way that fits with how the tests are formatted.  The Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) assessments are mandated in grades three through eight, and again in eleventh, and can dominate weeks in springtime.  School funding is in part tied to test outcomes, and these tests limit classroom teacher flexibility and school district elasticity.  Teachers are inhibited from doing what they do best: teach. 

When public education was first established in the United States, it was intended to ensure civic literacy among self-governing Americans.  President James Madison, Father of the Constitution, said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Unfortunately, public K-12 education has strayed from this objective, and the negative impact on civic literacy this generates has bred extraordinarily negative consequences.

Much of the emphasis on standardized tests has been forced upon states by the federal government. It’s understandable if you want to compare schools and states, but the negative consequences of an overemphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized tests are considerable. 

The State Board of Education is on the right path with high school assessments, but Colorado needs to scale back our testing regime.  We should limit statewide assessments to the smallest extent necessary to ensure taxpayer accountability and meaningful information for parents.  Meanwhile, we must radically expand parents’ ability to choose the best educational environment for their children by tying the money to the student.

Rick Heroff, a local charter school administrator and former teacher in the Denver area, put it well: “If we as educators could be more trusted by the state to meet the standards and report proficiency, it would make our lives a lot easier and empower teachers,” he told me.

I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s long past time to unleash the unlimited potential of every student and every educator — while also empowering parents with the information they need to make the right choice for their children.

Click here to read Jimmy’s July 13 column at Colorado Politics, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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